Trust is a big issue. It takes time for me to earn it, and it never happens automatically. They see me as the “police”. They don’t trust anyone, including themselves, and they will tell me that.
Sometimes I acknowledge this to them, because they think I don’t understand them. I’ll say, “I know you probably see me as an old lady who doesn’t know anything, who’s just going to give you trouble. And given a little time, you’ll find out that’s not true.”
I try to encourage them to stick with it for at least one month. “Let’s go a month at a time.” Ninety percent of the time, if they stick with it, they calm down and life in the classroom is fine.
Once in awhile, I see a concrete example that this encouragement pays off. When I first met Mr. White*, he exhibited very immature behaviors. He struggled academically and always wanted to quit. In fact he did quit at one point. The policy didn’t allow him to return to class for at least 90 days. He did eventually return, progressing three grade levels within about a year, reaching literacy.
One lunch hour he appeared at my classroom door. Mr. White hesitated a moment, then said, “I just want to tell you thank you. In the two years I’ve been here, you’re the only one who has helped me. You kicked me in the butt and made me work. I may not have improved much, but it’s because of your help that I learned anything. I just wanted you to know you have made a difference in my life.” Teachers live for conversations like that.
Another approach I find successful is the “think of me as your coach” talk. Some of these students are quite anti-establishment, which is putting it mildly. They don’t like authority. They want that GED because they want to go home early. But they don’t think anybody else knows how to get them to that goal. They want it now and they want to do it their way. And to a certain extent, I let them do it their way, until they start to fall on their face. Sometimes it helps to give them the old “coach talk”.
I say, “Think of me as your coach or your personal trainer, and we’re all practicing for the big game.”
They understand that. They can relate to that pretty well. So then I say, “What if you think you should be working on dribbling the ball, and I’m telling you that you should be practicing your free throws? Do you think you’re going to play the big game next week if you’re over there dribbling that ball?”
And they always say, “No, no, no.”
Or I’ll say, “If a personal trainer told you to work on your upper body today and you said, ‘No, I’m going to work on my calves,’ how long would the trainer put up with you?” They get that.
All of my work in motivating sets the stage for learning, but it also serves another purpose. It leads to a more disciplined environment.
*All names have been changed in order to protect the privacy of each individual.
Janice M. Chamberlin, a licensed prison educator in Indiana, is the author of Locked Up With Success. In her book, Ms. Chamberlin shares stories not only of the challenges she has faced, but also the triumphs she has seen in the prison classroom setting. She has successfully developed a system that can unlock potential even in the highest risk students. The full paperback or digital version can be purchased at .